Reflections on Black Wifehood in “The Meaning of Michelle”

In Book and Theme Posts, Feminism, Lifewriting by Angelina Eimannsberger

“Imagine that. America shaped in the image of a black man–with a black woman by his side. Even after eight years of watching them daily in the press, the fact that the most powerful man in the world is a Black man is still breathtaking to me. The fact that he goes home to a tight-knit, loving family headed by a Black woman is soul-stirring. That woman is Michelle.”
(Ava DuVernay xii)
With Michelle Obama, “here was a busy woman who had found the time to take care of herself. She was not last on her to-do list, after her amazing kids and her extraordinary husband. She put herself first–and had done so for a long time.”
(Veronica Chambers 3)

By Angelina Eimannsberger

The authors of the essay collection The Meaning of Michelle, edited by Veronica Chambers, often don’t know FLOTUS Michelle Obama personally or only met her briefly; none are career politicians. Completed when the 2016 election was still undecided, The Meaning of Michelle is blissfully unaware of the Obamas’ successors, Donald and Melania Trump, and their implications. Instead, the essays reflect on what it was like to have witnessed the reign of the Obamas, especially as black women, black wives, and black Americans. Most interestingly, The Meaning of Michelle explores black wifehood as a never fully articulated but most generative thread that links the essays in this book. Second wave feminism’s politicization of the private and third wave feminism’s insistence on intersectionality overlap, resulting in a tentative exploration of a black woman who became a public icon through taking on a glorified role of wife. 

Cleverly, only the last essay, by Bad Feminist and Hunger author Roxane Gay, articulates the strangeness of celebrating a First Lady as a feminist (meaning not white or middle class or otherwise blindly limited feminist but real feminist aka intersectional, aware of class and race and other differences among women) icon: “When you really think about it, the role of First Lady is decidedly unenviable, particularly when considering the role from a feminist perspective. For four to eight years, a woman becomes a professional spouse.” (Gay 192) Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife Chirlane McCray, another famous black wife and first lady, reminds us how “Secretary Hillary Clinton’s experience as First Lady is proof of how vehemently some will fight the idea of our president taking full advantage of his partner’s skills and knowledge.” (McCray 82) Most of the time, the role of a wife is not a role we think of positively as feminists, as social justice activists, or as female writers and readers. There are empowered wives such as Clair Huxtable but their lives do not match the lived reality of most post-1970s women, not even the ones sharing Claire’s middle class privilege. 

Pointing out how Michelle Obama negotiated her role and her life, the essays in The Meaning of Michelle contribute to an emerging feminist concept of black wifehood, from abstract analysis to emotional appreciation.

The essay by Cathi Hanauer, author of The Bitch in the House, while being the least skillful essay of the collection, specifically discusses Michelle Obama as a wife. However, this essay lacks any understanding that a wifehood that is middle-class and white, like the author’s, might be limited. Its value consists in voicing post- second wave feminist concerns about what it means to be a wife, thus helping to make the other essay’s less conspicuous but more generative treatment of wifehood more easily visible.  

In her essay, Professor Brittney Cooper discusses black wifehood by thinking about Michelle Obama’s relation to Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, observing that the “mutual girl crush that Michelle Obama and Beyoncé share is a serendipitous study in twenty-first-century Black girlhood, womanhood and ladyhood.” (Cooper 57) Beyoncé’s Lemonade made her the most feminist, most powerful, and most independently wealthy of black wives, and all wives. Thus, the friendship of Michelle Obama and Beyoncé is a study in two of the most famous contemporary wives that each represent a “different social genealogy of Black womanhood.” (Cooper 59-60) Both of them have many fans who admire them as black women, as success stories, as professionals, as mothers, and as wives. Replacing destructive clichés of absent black fathers and welfare queen black mothers, among many other stereotypes negatively portraying black families, by loving, successful, glamorous families such as the Obamas and the Knowles-Carters and their successfully curated public image, has an impact on the black and white and general public’s imagination of black families that can hardly be exaggerated in its power to heal and inspire and convince. To see them happy, influential, wealthy, and near universally popular is a seismic shift in how we are socialized to see black women, mothers, wives.

Another recent example of a rediscovery of wifehood, through the lens of the black re-telling of the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton, comes from Phillipa Soo’s portrayal of Eliza Hamilton in the Broadway musical Hamilton. Eliza wasn’t a well known figure in US history until Lin Manuel-Miranda publicized her story, sparking interest in her life that goes far beyond the musical we know. Soo writes about her experience giving voice to Eliza for The Meaning of Michelle, while also thinking about what it means to be a citizen artist. She reflects that when she had trouble digging up more information about her character, she “just chalked it up to me being a lazy researcher” (Soo 183). However, preparing to be Eliza telling Hamilton’s story, Soo “was just as surprised and awestruck but the beauty of this woman’s legacy that not many people know about, and how beautiful this moment was that we’re giving her, a voice and a place in history for the first time. It’s huge.” (Soo 184) Soo has become acutely aware of the lack of empowerment traditionally implicit in being the wife, and the lack of legacy most wives have faces throughout history. She shares in her essay that through Hamilton’s success she met many women, and especially wives, who resonated strongly with her character, and the musical’s revealing of the wife as storyteller and agent:

“Because Hamilton has had such a universal voice, it’s brought some of the most amazing women into my life […] And to be able to share it with them in this way, I feel like it’s paying homage to them, it’s paying homage to Eliza, and to all the other versions of Eliza that have existed throughout history and will exist for ages to come.” (Soo 190)

The ‘other versions of Eliza’ include wives who have lost their husband, and whose legacy and story has been buried in the history of men. Soo’s essay, then, reinforces the sense the reader gets following the anecdotes about Michelle that being a wife can be a role of strength and impact, and a new visibility of that empowerment.

Pointing out the importance for Michelle Obama of prioritizing herself and other roles besides the wife and first lady, Tiffany Dufu, author of the feminist anti-perfection manifesto “Drop the Ball,” argues that until recently “the First Lady represented the embodiment of feminine perfection: Stepford Wife-in-Chief” (Dufu 101). For example, only two other first ladies besides Michelle Obama had a graduate degree. This traditional type of wifehood, the antiquated style of being a first lady provides a sharp contrast to Michelle Obama sometimes but not always because “Michelle Obama is both traditional and disruptive. The self-proclaimed mom-in-chief embraces cultural norms about women’s reign at home. Being a mother is her first priority.” (Dufu 109) Dufu points out why Michelle Obama as to be different from an all private wife: “to forgo pursuing a career would be to squander the education she and her parents worked so hard for her to attain. It also represents a huge financial risk, since her husband’s career as an activist and politician was hardly a guarantee of economic freedom.” (Dufu 110) These are simple, true facts that apply to many women who came of age after the women’s liberation had made college and careers widely accessible. However, this liberation often doesn’t help with having to take on the double load of career and family, since while opportunities for women have doubtlessly become more, privileges for men did not become correspondingly less. Dufu astutely observes,

“Michelle refused to be the working mommy martyr and began doing one of the most difficult things for working mothers: she prioritized herself. She started leaving the house at dawn to go workout, which forced her husband to take care of the girls in the morning. She built a village of friends, family and babysitters so that support would always be a text away. She learned to ask for help and no longer consider her success a solo endeavor. The combination of her traditional and disruptive personas represents a modern mantra: a good woman sacrifices, but not at her own expense.” (Dufu 111)

Dufu, thus, offers the clear insight that wife as a site of empowerment only works if it’s clearly contained as one role among several others; Michelle Obama is simultaneously healthy woman, daughter, lawyer, highly educated, and flawed human. Only by placing ‘wife’ and ‘first lady’ among other, and equally important, roles can she be the iconic strong and powerful wife that we have come to know. Supporting Dufu’s point, Veronica Chambers’s introduction observes that “what was behind all the shine that her biceps received in the media, both in the United States and around the world: here was a busy woman who had found the time to take care of herself. She was not last on her to-do list, after her amazing kids and her extraordinary husband. She put herself first–and had done so for a long time” (Chambers 3). Thus, Dufu and Chambers both rightly point out that Michelle Obama’s fitness, her famous arms, and her sense of fashion are important indicators of how she navigates her own person.

This importance of Michelle Obama’s valorizing herself for herself is also corroborated by Chirlane McCray, the first lady of New York City. Meeting Michelle Obama for the first time and soon after her own husband came into office, McCray asked Michelle Obama for advice. In response,

Michelle Obama “did not offer me a clichéd response about following my passions. With a sternness that is refreshing in retrospect but was quite a bit to absorb at the time, she talked about the kind of practical support and staffing I would need, including a chief of staff, scheduler and communications director. Surround yourself with people you trust, she told me. And she stressed how I would have to protect my personal time.” (McCray 75)

Drawing on this personal experience as well as media coverage of Michelle Obama’s life in the White House, McCray concludes:

“The way she has arranged her life reveals a lot about who she is and what she cares about. And the way her life is portrayed and perceived has much to teach us about what it means to be a woman in the twenty-first century […] When First Lady Obama said her top priority was to serve as mom-in-chief, she was telling us that her family comes first” (McCray 76).

Reminiscent of Audre Lorde’s defiant postulation that “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive,” McCray says about Michelle Obama: “I have tremendous respect for how she defined herself, right from the beginning, definer her role before there was too much speculation about what she would do.” (McCray 76) Thus, McCray helps us see how Michelle Obama co-created her role as wife and first black First Lady. Commenting on the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign, McCray insightfully observes that this initiative is “as big and ambitious as many of the President’s efforts, which shows that she is not afraid to embrace the full potential of her platform […] But I also love that she chose an initiative that nurtures her own physical and mental health.” (McCray 78) Michelle Obama has designed her role as mom-in-chief to be a platform for politics, like other first ladies to different levels of success, but also as a platform to be her best self– a utilization of the role as wife and first lady we rarely ever see performed this proudly and joyfully and generatively. 

While creating this role, Michelle Obama also is a black woman in the center of the public eye ‘waking up every morning in a house built by slaves,’ in her own memorable phrasing. Her black wifehood, therefore, is not just public and glamorous, but also under intense scrutiny and always only a step away from hate and racist slurs. Professor Tanisha Ford’s essay observes in the detail of difference between press coverage of the First Lady’s arms as contrasted with Jackie Kennedy. Michelle Obama’s “team clearly decided to mold her into a twenty-first-century version of a Jackie Kennedy type of First Lady, who was impeccably dressed as she attended to hearth and home” (Ford 122) However, this inspiration needs to be channelled by the knowledge that Michelle Obama is a black woman, and as such under a different type of attention and attack than the white womanhood and body of someone like Jackie Kennedy. Therefore, Ford continues that “as fashion critic Robin Givhan has noted, the genteel femininity through which we read Jackie Kennedy was not available to Michelle Obama as a Black woman” (Ford 123-4). This becomes obvious for example when it comes to Michelle Obama’s arms that weren’t Jackie Kennedy’s “milky arms [which] were read as lithe and petite, nonthreatening” (Ford 124). Instead, Michelle Obama’s “arms were too muscular, too masculine” (Ford 124). And this detail stands in for a much larger debate as “This fixation on [Michelle’s] arms allowed conservative political pundits to have a conversation about the whole of her body and the ways in which it was out of place in the White House.” (Ford 124) And yet, Michelle Obama became an icon of black wifehood, among many other accomplishment and in spite of a potentially threatening public and a brutal historic legacy of the very house she lived in, as well as the country she was serving as first lady.

The Meaning of Michelle makes visible several important aspects of the outstanding performance of Michelle Obama’s black wifehood: prioritizing herself, resisting the public onslaught, creating new networks, protecting her own time and family, and most importantly creating and narrating a legacy. Yet, it is a cis heteronormative narrative told by people who maybe have known poverty in the past but don’t live in it anymore. Therefore, having become newly interested in the role of spouse, we are faced with many more questions about being a powerful married person: What is it like to be a spouse in a queer relationship, a wife of a wife or a husband of a husband, a trans woman or a trans man embarking on a maybe or maybe not heteronormative relationship, to be part of any number of resisting concepts of marriage and family, including lack of legal and cultural access to the resources the role of spouse can offer? The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and Surpassing Certainty by Janet Mock have thoughts on certain aspects of this. The strong class privilege of any first lady also begs asking, what is it like to be a poor woman and a wife? What kind of choices are available and stomachable?

Let’s do this kind of thinking about partnerships and families as resistance to Melania Trump’s demure and complicit wifehood, to continued restrictions on marriage equality, and as part of our thinking on social justice and feminism. The role of wife has thoroughly been identified as a site of oppression– should we (continue to) make it productive as a site of resistance,strength, contribution, and empowerment for ourselves and each other, and if so, how?